Isle of Wight Rifles - History - The Early Years

History

The Early Years

Picture of Rifleman of the Isle of Wight Volunteers, 1861
Rifleman of the Isle of Wight Volunteers, 1861

The history of the Isle of Wight Rifles dates back over one hundred and fifty years to 1859 when it was decided that a volunteer force should be raised for the defence of the Island. In November of that year, six corps of volunteers were raised, two, the 1st and 3rd at Ryde, the 2nd at Newport, the 4th at Nunwell, the 5th at Ventnor and the 6th at Sandown. These six units operated completely independently of each other until, on the 6th of July, 1860, they were formed into the '1st Administrative Battalion, Isle of Wight Volunteers.' The officers at this time were Col. Dunsmere, late of the 42nd Highlanders in command with Captain McGrotty, late of the Rifle Brigade serving as adjutant. In 1871, Colonel F. H. A. Atherley, late of the Rifle Brigade took over the command and in 1878, Captain Cope, also late of the Rifle Brigade, took the place of Captain McGrotty as Adjutant. The battalion continued thus up until April, 1880, when the six corps fully amalgamated and became the '1st Isle of Wight Rifle Volunteer Corps.' Major G. Forrest of the Hampshire Regiment took over the duties of Adjutant at this time. In 1885, the unit was to change its title yet again, this time becoming 'The 5th ( Isle of Wight, Princess Beatrice's) Volunteer Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment,' and His Royal Highness Prince Henry of Battenburg was appointed as the regiment's first Honorary Colonel. Major Monckton succeeded Major Forrest in 1885. On the 16th of January, 1891, Colonel Atherley retired and he was succeeded by Lt. Colonel E. W. Cradock, late of the Royal Fusiliers, who proved to be one of the most popular commanding officers that the battalion ever had. Captain Westmoreland became Adjutant in 1891, and was in turn succeeded by Captain Coddington in 1897. The death of H.R.H. Prince Henry whilst serving with the military mission to the Ashanti in 1896 caused a vacancy in the Honorary Colonelcy, and in February, 1897, His Royal Highness the Duke of York, later to become His Majesty King George V, accepted the vacancy. When mobilisation had taken place in 1892 of the Southern District under the command of the Duke of Connaught, Prince Henry joined his regiment at Parkhurst in Albany Barracks. He marched with the battalion to Freshwater and took part in a very long field day, returning with the men to Parkhurst and remaining with the battalion during the greater part of the week. On the day following the march His Royal Highness was with the regiment at a night attack at Freshwater, and two days later took part in a field day at Sandown. Prince Henry throughly entered into his duties as Honorary Colonel and the Rifles sustained a grevious loss by his death. He had endeared himself to his men by the way in which he shared their duties and the interest which he took in the regiment. On the occasion of his marriage to Her Royal Highness Princess Beatrice, Prince Henry had been presented with a dress sword by the officers of the battalion, on his death the Prince bequeathed the sword to the Regiment and expressed a wish that the Colonel of the regiment should wear the sword at the annual inspection, this practise was carried out right up until the unit was finally disbanded.

Colonel Cradock retired in 1900 and he was to be followed by Col. Sir C. H. Seely who held the command until 1908 when he was succeeded by Lt. Col. Sir C. V. C. Hobart D.S.O. When, during the South African War, volunteers were called for to serve overseas, all detachments of the Rifles promptly put forward lists of men who were prepared to go to South Africa. Virtually all fit men had volunteered but only a small proportion of them were actually accepted.

The 1st Active Service Section of the Isle of Wight Rifles consisted of; Sgt. W. Weeks, Cpl. A. Fabian, L/Cpls. J. Seymore and A. ArneII, and Riflemen C. Poole, E. White, MI. Osbourne, O. Mew, T. Odell, W. Attrill, A. Mathews, H. Love, H. King, C. Kelson, E. Hawkins, C. Woodford, J. Cheverton, F. Cooper, G. Webb, E. Caws, and F. Peach. These twenty one men were sent to Browndown where they underwent a course of musketry. They returned to the Island from Portsmouth on the 1st of February 1900 and went straight to Osborne House where they were to be inspected by Her Royal Highness Princess Beatrice. Each man was presented with a keyless wristwatch by Lady Seely. After inspecting the section Princess Beatrice addressed the men saying, "I am very glad to have this opportunity of bidding you farewell on the eve of your departure for South Africa on active service. You know how warm an interest I take in the regiment that bears my name and, was in the past, so closely associated with my dear husband, he would have rejoiced as I do today, to see so many of you nobly coming forward to fight in defence of your Queen and Empire and I am sure you will always uphold the good name of your regiment. May God protect you all and bring you safe home again."

Colonel Cradock replied that they were all thinking of the noble example set them by their honorary colonel. Queen Victoria watched the proceedings from a window of Osborne Houe and later provided the men with hospitality in the house. Cheers were given for Her Majesty and the Duke of York. Princess Beatrice presented each of the departing men with a pipe and a woollen cap.

Picture of RMS Douane Castle, 1901
RMS Douane Castle, 1901

The first Isle of Wight Active Service Section joined a company of volunteers formed from the various volunteer battalions from the county of Hampshire. This company sailed for South Africa on board the 'Douane Castle,' from Southampton on the 11th of February 1900. Colonel Cradock, the officers and men of the battalion, relatives and friends travelled to Southampton to see them off. A message had been received from the Colonel H. R. H. The Duke of York and the men much appreciated this message being read to them by Colonel Cradock. In his message the Duke of York had expressed his pleasure that men from his own regiment were at last going overseas on active service and he wished them godspeed and a safe return.

The Douane Castle arrived in Table Bay on the 5th of March 1900 and the volunteers actually landed on the 6th. On their arrival the men of the Rifles were billeted in Green Camp, in Cape Town, from here they moved to De Doorn's Camp on the 17th of March. At De Doorn's they eagerly awaited posting up country to join up with the 2nd Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment at Bloemfontein. By the time the volunteer company had reached Bloemfontein the Hampshires had moved on towards Pretoria. During the march to try and catch them up the Islanders were to be delayed for over a month when they were ordered to occupy entrenched positions on the banks of the Vaal River. The men of the Rifles arrived at Pretoria on the 26th of June and three days later, when they were occupying the Eastern Redoubt, half of the company were ordered to escort a large party of Boer prisoners back to what had been the border of the old Orange Free State. On their return they were immediately sent out again, this time their duties were to escort some heavy artillery from Pretoria to Reitfontein to reinforce General Huttons brigade of mounted infantry who were operating in that area. On July 11th they were ordered to march again, most of the men had been on duty for thirty hours or so and having had very little food in that time, they were not in an exceptionally good condition.

At 1.30 p.m. they marched out in heavy marching order, their heavy kit and blankets, etc., going by mule transport wagons. As they left Pretoria and passed through Ruspoort Pass they were joined by men of the Scottish Borderers, the Norfolk Regiment and some artillery. They marched to Uitvlie Nek, their march took them through a plain about a mile and a half wide, bounded by hills on either side. In a small nek in the range of hills on the northern side of this plain ran the road to Rustenburg and Mafeking. In a small valley in this northern range of hills three companies of the Lincolns and about eighty men of the Scots Greys had been surprised in bivouac by a large party of Boers who had climbed the kopjes on either side of the nek. The party of reinforcements arrived too late to have a major engagement with the enemy but they were able to cover the safe withdrawal of the Lincolns and Greys. They had covered a distance of thirty-five miles from Pretoria in a little over twelve hours. This march is believed to have been the record march of the entire Boer War.

On the 1st of November 1900 the detachment of men of the Rifles attended the funeral of Prince Christian Victor who had been killed whilst serving as a major in the 'Kings Royal Rifles.'

During the remainder of their period in South Africa the Island volunteers won high recognition of their splendid service in the lines of supply and communication in Cape Colony and the Orange Free State. They eventually managed to join up with the 2nd Battalion Hampshire Regiment on the 5th of September. They considered themselves unfortunate in that they were not in the thick of the fighting but, never the less, they won the distinction of being able to wear the battle honour 'South Africa 1900-01.'

This honour was incorporated into the regimental cap badge from this time. They returned home aboard the steamer 'Lake Erie' and arrived at Southampton on the 6th of May 1901. On March 16th, 1901 a second company of Hampshire volunteers had sailed for South Africa on the 'Kildonan Castle' under the command of Capt. Grant who had, until that time, commanded 'H' Company of the Rifles at Cowes. There were only three other ranks from the Rifles in this party although many more had volunteed, only ten were accepted and only the three of these passed their final medical examinations, they were L/Cpl. F. White, Rfn. J. Hardy and Rfn. J. Phillips.

Picture of a sargeant, 1902
A Sargeant, 1902

In May, 1902, Captain Grant and the three men of the second active service company, returned home with the Hampshire Regiment. They escaped unscathed from a terrible railway accident at Babberton in which several of the Hampshires were killed and a number seriously injured. On September the 12th, 1901, Her Royal Highness Princess Beatrice had presented the medals won by the Island volunteers in South Africa at Carisbrooke Castle. With the exception of one man who had remained at the front at his own request, all of the first section returned safely to the Island. Unfortunately, two men had died since their arrival home from illnesses contracted at the front, they were Corporal Arne!! and Rifleman Kelson. Colour Sergeant Weeks had been promoted whilst in South Africa and had been mentioned in despatches.

When Lord Roberts had returned home from South Africa early in 1901, his first stop was to visit Queen Victoria at Osborne House. Lord Roberts landed at the Trinity Pier and men of the isle of Wight Rifles...and Royal Rifle Corps from Parkhurst, lined the route up to Osborne. The mounted escort was provided by the Isle of Wight Troop of the Imperial Yeomanry.

During the later half of 1900, it had been decided that each infantry battalion should now have a company of cyclist volunteers, this was to consist of one captain, two lieutenants, one colour sergeant, four sergeants, five corporals, two buglers and eighty-three riflemen. By 1902, the Isle of Wight Rifles had reached the required number and the cyclist company was regularly to be seen on their exercises on the Island roads. During the Boer War, the Cowes Company of the Rifles. had built themselves a rifle range at Gurnard, this was the cause of much controversy and a constant stream of letters appeared in the local Press complaining that the range was dangerous to the local population and apparently, with regularity, bullets were passing through the sails of yachts passing Gurnard. It had no effect, the range continued to be used by the Rifles until the end of the war.

After the South African War, the battalion reverted to its normal part-time role, holding regular week-end camps and their annual two week summer camp. These summer camps were held at different locations on the Island and also at a number of different army camps in Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset. When, in 1907, the Territorial Army Act was passed through Parliament, the battalion again took a new title, this time they became 'Princess Beatrice's Isle of Wight Rifles, 8th Battalion the Hampshire Regiment.' The training camps held by the new 'Territorial Army' proved to be highly popular with the men. When in camp, they received normal pay and in addition to this they received an annual bounty of five pounds. Many amusing incidents occurred in camp and the high spirits of the battalion manifested themselves in many ways, usually to the misfortune of one of their number. Two of these incidents appear to have stuck in the memories of the old soldiers, both of them took place at Newtown Ranges during weekend shooting camps. It was the custom, as soon as the days duties were completed, for the men to retire to the nearest public house, this happened to be the 'Sportsmans Rest' in the village of Porchfield (this public house is still in existence today), here they would consume fairly large quantities of the local brew, a very strong beer which was considered to be one of the best on the Island. One evening the revellers returned to camp sometime after eleven-thirty and as they entered the camp lines the outline of a head was seen, silhouetted by a candle, against the side of one of the tents. Someone, slightly the worse off for the beer, seized upon a heavy tent pegging mallet and proceded to strike the head a smart blow, the unfortunate victim of this assault rushed from the tent dressed in nothing but his skin, and ran around the camp nursing his battered head in his hands and cursing at the top of his voice. As it was now approaching midnight this caused pandemonium, rousing the entire camp who proceeded to watch the spectacle of a naked rifleman running round and round the tents threatening what he would do if ever he managed to find his assailant.

During another of these weekend camps, one very keen practical joker hit upon the idea of embarrassing his company sergeant major. This unfortunate individual was in the habit of consuming a couple of pints of beer at lunch-time and then retiring to his tent to spread-eagle himself in a deck chair to go to sleep. Whilst his CSM peacefully slept, our joker proceeded to the canteen where he purchased the largest banana he could find, then after creeping up on the sleeping man, he proceeded to open the front of his trousers, having successfully accomplished this without awakening his victim, he inserted the banana in the opening in the CSM's trousers, then he persuaded the camp photographer to take several pictures of this most peculiar sight. By tea time the prints were ready and these were rapidly circulated around the camp. By the time the CSM eventually got to hear about these pictures, they had been seen by almost everyone in the camp and one can imagine his surprise and embarrassment when he saw that the subject of these much talked about pictures was himself. Comedy and fun seemed to be the motto of the battalion in these years of peace, on another occasion, while they were on parade at Yaverland Fort, the commanding officer ordered Captain Ellery to drill the battalion. As he stood at the edge of the parade ground, lining them up, platoon by platoon, he was slowly moving backwards, suddenly in mid-sentence, he vanished from sight. He had fallen backwards in to the moat. Silence reigned for some seconds then, as he slowly struggled back into view, the whole battalion burst into laughter. The only injury he had suffered was to his pride.

Picture of the Cyclist Company, 1912
The Cyclist Company, 1912

Fun aside, the battalion was very proud of it: smartness and efficiency and always managed to do well in the annual weapon competitions and on its return from the annual camps on the mainland, always marched through the city of Southampton and the local citizens were given the pleasure of seeing a full infantry battalion marching with their rifles at the trail, led by their band and corps of bugles. The band was very large and extremely popular with the civilian inhabitants who turned out to watch in large numbers. The most popular tune on the march with the men was 'Marching through Georgia,' a large percentage of them had adopted this as the unofficial regimental march.

During the last few years of peace prior to the first war, most of the recruits into the Territorial Army were men from the working classes, and they looked upon their annual bounty of five pounds as a small fortune, most of them buying a suit and some spare boots from it, things they would have otherwise been unable to afford.

At the end of 1913, the battalion consisted of eight companies, and early in 1914 these were amalgamated to form four. 'A' Company joined with 'C', 'B' with 'H', 'E' with 'F' and 'D' joined with 'G'. In 1913, the command of the regiment passed to Lt.-Colonel J. E. Rhodes, who was, two years later, to take his men to see their first major action on the beaches of Suvla Bay. In May, 1914, the Duke of Argyll died at Osborne and the battalion lined part of the route when his body was carried from Osborne to Westminster.

Picture of Young Recruit, 1908
Young Recruit, 1908
Newtown, 1911
Newtown, 1911